Stepping Stones To A Setting Sun

by Leonard Engel

In cooperation with our Australian allies, we have been on the offensive in two areas of the South Pacific. We have moved into New Guinea and the central Solomons through the past summer and fall with the objective of taking Rabaul on New Britain island, keystone of the southernmost Japanese line of defense. Nevertheless, we may soon move in another direction altogether, against Wake and Truk, the great Jap naval base in the Central Pacific. Our planes have visited Wake several times, and a naval task force, once; now we may come back to it with land, sea and air forces, to stay, and to move on toward Truk.

The reason for such a shift in our spearhead of effort in the Pacific is the fact that the approaches to Rabaul, a natural fortress; are difficult. Once we are there, we are still only at the edge of the sprawling Jap empire. The seizure of Wake and Truk are likewise not easy; on the other hand, it is worth the greatest risks and sacrifices, for Truk lies at the Japanese empire's ocean heart. Truk is at the crossing of the huge inverted T formed by the South and West Pacific islands in Japanese hands before the war. If we succeed in taking it, the eastern Carolines, the Marshalls and Gilberts, as well as New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands, New Ireland, New Britain (including Rabaul), and the northern Solomons — all the enemy's possessions south and east of Truk — will be at our mercy. We will also be able to cut off entirely, instead of merely interfere with, the traffic between Japan and the conquered Dutch Indies.

Truk is the center of traditional American strategy for war with Japan. If the main strength of our Pacific fleet had not been immobilized by the disaster of Pearl Harbor, we might very well have made an attempt to seize it in the first year of the war. We centered our attention on the South Pacific instead largely because we didn't have enough ships to take the risks — especially in this age of air power — involved in driving into the heart of an enemy ocean. But now we do; moreover, the enemy fleet has been weakened by two years of attrition warfare.

A thrust to Truk would involve battle operations over much greater distances than either the Solomons or New Guinea campaigns. Truk is 3500 miles (all distances in this article are in land miles) from Honolulu, and 2400 from Midway, as compared with Guadalcanal's 625 from our advance bases in the New Hebrides and the New Guinea front's 1400 from Darwin. But Truk's remoteness, which has guarded it well from long-range land bombers, should not be insurmountable. Truk is protected by island outposts in every other direction, is unshielded in the quarter from which we would come, the northeast.

The only outpost directly in our path would be Wake, halfway from Midway and two-thirds of the way from Honolulu. Wake would have to be recaptured. However, like Truk, which consists of eleven small volcanic and eighty smaller coral islands in a triangular reef-enclosed lagoon 40 miles long and 40 wide, the Wake atoll group has an exceedingly small land area. As the lack of damage to any of our recent raiding naval vessels shows, it is not possible to dispose of really adequate military forces on Wake.

Past Wake, we would be exposed to attack from the 33 Marshall Island atolls on our left flank as we steamed toward Truk. But we need not come within 950 miles of the Marshalls; Eniwetok, closest to Wake, is 950 miles distant. Adm Halsey's sweep into the Marshalls early last year, furthermore, found the forces based on them even more limited than those at Wake and that not much larger units can be accommodated. At four of the most important atolls, Wotje, Jaluit, Kwajalein and Maloelap, Adm Halsey's pilots found altogether less than 50 planes, one converted aircraft carrier, a light cruiser, a destroyer, five submarines and a dozen cargo ships of assorted sizes. The eight or ten other atolls of military importance, such as Eniwetok, which we did not visit, can scarcely be more strongly defended.

Despite the several successful raids on Wake by Liberators and Flying Fortresses from Midway (1180 miles away), our armada would naturally have to bring its own airpower. Ordinarily, carrier planes are no match for land-based craft. Our newer ship-borne types — the Corsair, Hellcat, Avenger and others — however, have established clear superiority over the best Japan has to offer, land-based or otherwise. Moreover, we should now have enough carriers to give ourselves numerical superiority in the air as well, even above Truk itself. By the end of this year, as indicated by Undersecretary of the Navy Forrestal's statement a few months ago, we should have 15 or more fleet carriers in service, plus possible reinforcements of British carriers (one, the Victorious, has just completed a year of operations with our Pacific fleet. She or others can surely be spared since Italy's surrender. Among the new carriers that will be available will be several of the 27,000-ton Essex type, among the largest carriers in existence.

The greatest hurdle between us and Truk is the Japanese battle fleet. Although the New Guinea-Solomons area is heavily garrisoned by the enemy army, Japanese naval forces in the South Pacific since our great night sea victories of November, 1942, have consisted mainly of cruisers and light vessels. The main units have been kept in reserve, probably between Truk and the Japanese mainland 2,000 miles northwest. But we should like nothing better than the opportunity of coming to grips with the enemy's main fleet. The Navy had hoped early this year that that was what would happen in the Solomons. Besides our huge and still growing fleet of aircraft carriers, our navy has a battle line of 21 capital ships, including eight new and three recently-reconstructed vessels. In addition to the North Carolina and Washington, our first modern battle wagons, we have the four South Dakotas — much improved over the North Carolinas — as well as two 45,000-ton monsters, the Iowa and New Jersey. Very nearly all of these can be made available for a Pacific offensive. The Japanese, on the other hand, have only two or three new units and have lost two or three older ones, for a total of ten, the number with which they began the war.

Just as the seizure of Wake would help us to take Truk, so the capture of Truk would aid us in cleaning out the surrounding Japanese strongholds. We would be at the center of the Japanese circle, operating outward (as the Japanese themselves were during their lightning advances of 1941-2). A great many key Japanese points would be within easy reach of our planes. Among such points are: Ponape, a coral-enclosed 10-mile-wide island 450 miles east of Truk; Kusaie, a similar pinpoint 300 miles further east (that is, nearer our half of the Pacific); Yap, 950 miles from Truk in the opposite direction; the Palau Islands, 300 miles southwest of Yap, and one of Japan's main sources of bauxite (aluminum ore) as well as a naval outpost. These are all in the Carolines.

Also within reach of Truk are the Marianas, including our one-time outpost of Guam. The Marianas are the vertical bar of the Japanese ocean islands' inverted T and are true stepping stones to Tokyo. Guam itself is the southernmost of the 15 Marianas and is 600 miles north of Truk. The others, of which only Rota and Saipan are believed fortified, run straight to within 300 miles of the Kazan Retto and Bonin islands, another Jap chain which is less than 600 miles from Tokyo. Our forces based on Wake and Truk would also be able to reach Marcus Island, twice task-force-blitzed outpost 1,000 miles southeast of Tokyo.

The transfer of our main effort to the Central Pacific would by no means mean the abandonment of all activity in the New Guinea-Solomons area. Nor would it mean the dropping of the planned campaign for the recapture of Burma and reopening of Burma road communications with China. Neither of these two operations involves massive naval forces, and the Central Pacific operations would not involve massive land forces. Of air forces, Allied production should be able to provide enough in both theaters. Moreover, the New Guinea-Solomons campaign provides a diversion valuable to the two more important campaigns. The two more important campaigns, of course, also provide valuable diversions for each other. The pull upon Japanese air power will be particularly marked. Although Japanese production has so far managed to keep even with losses, it cannot replace casualties on three major fronts at once.

This article was originally published in the January, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 1, pp 34-35.
The original article includes 8 photos and a map.
Photos credited to Acme, European, Rudy Arnold Photos, AAF.